Young Iraqi Artists

Dying (2007) by Haleem Kasim

A trend among young Iraqi artists is to depict the brutal, violent, political world in which they live – although their instructors and patrons would prefer happier subjects. Young artists in Iraq have been shaped by the US occupation and violence that has become part of their lives. Haleem Kasim, the creator of the paintings shown (both interestingly titled in English), attributed his shift to darker subjects to witnessing a car bombing in 2006. In the first piece, Dying, heads are mashed together in a dark, bluish-purple background; some seem to be screaming in pain or terror, others stare. The Bomb (below), perhaps referring to Kasim’s traumatic memories, has less-defined body parts in a more muted landscape, presenting the horror of a car bombing.

The Bomb (2007) by Haleem Kasim

Art differs from other forms of media because its meaning can be more obscure. Art is generally less accessible to most people and it tends to be less entertaining than other media. Unlike media with a spoken component (such as film or television), paintings cannot tell the audience what they are trying to say. Meaning can be subtle and ambiguous – referring to other media, current or historical events, personal memories, or virtually anything else.

An artist needs his or her work to be sold to continue creating art. If the darker topics of Iraqi artists are not appreciated by buyers, then artists may have to succumb to outside pressure and create “happier” pieces (or they could make unwanted art and not make money). Differing conceptions of art – is it high culture, aesthetically-pleasing diversion, a means of expressing something otherwise inexpressible, a form of social or political dissent? – is another issue.

Media can be used to create an image of a nation, and the image these Iraqi artists are producing is one that challenges that “happy” image and the conventions the older generations of artists and political elite, who control the schools, awards, and funding these young Iraqis need. The pressure from buyers, instructors, and the political and art elite to compose more pleasant artworks has intimidated but not quite stifled the young artists of Iraq who have lived through traumatic times and wish to express their frustrations, emotions, memories, opinions, and surroundings in ways that may not depict their country in the best light or conform to others’ image of their nation.

The New York Times article on young Iraqi artists (assigned on 2/23): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/world/asia/19iraq.html

Iraqi Art, a non-profit for Iraqi artists (in the gallery are the two pieces by Haleem Kasim): http://www.iraqi-art.com/

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5 Responses to Young Iraqi Artists

  1. Interesting – I am surprised that the market still prizes more uplifting or happy Iraqi art, given all that has happened. What amazing images!

  2. I think it’s interesting that while the artists are expressing their darker thoughts and feelings regarding the recent issues in the Middle East, patrons still want more happy or pleasant looking art. Could it be that the older generation – those who are in a position to spend money on art – want to ignore the recent wars and horrors? Or that they would rather focus on the positives or look at their country as it once was?

  3. I think your points about images as creating the nation really ring true here. When I read the NYT article, I was struck by the different reasons artists needed to paint positive images before and after the occupation. Maybe after Saddam Hussein’s rule was over, artists were free to paint more political images, but those images aren’t selling, so they still have to follow the dictates of the ruling elites. In this case, the American occupying forces such as the foreign service officers we discussed in class are the ones trying to create a certain image of Iraq as nation. Perhaps Iraqi artists have simply swapped one set of challenges for another, though I doubt that benefactors would like to hear it.

  4. I think it’s interesting that you pointed out that the titles of the paintings are in English. This definitely reflects the international influence that is being held over these images – the artists undoubtedly know that their audience is more than just the people of Iraq. This also leads me to wonder if the US helps to fund these artists and, if so, if they see it a way of helping the people of Iraq.
    I still wonder though why this type of painting is limited to younger artists – why is not taken up by older artists?

  5. Like the previous comment, the fact that the pieces are titled in English is really interesting and hypocritical in a sense. It makes me think who the artist’ target audience is: the Iraqi people, or the Western world that would be “intrigued” by this kind of art. Art that was created because of the effect of Western influences and power struggle. Nonetheless, the art is a great outlet for Iraqi youth to share their feelings, sentiments and emotions in a medium that can be consumed by anyone, whether they are “highly educated” or not.

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